Austin Katstra’s interest in counterterrorism began on May 2, 2011. That’s the day U.S. forces killed Osama Bin Laden.
Katstra didn’t know much about the terrorist nearly a decade ago, so the then-middle schooler researched Bin Laden and started to learn about how the U.S. responded to Bin Laden’s acts of terrorism. With a former marine as a step-grandfather, Katstra already had some interest in helping his country, but the interest spiked when learning more about counterterrorism.
While wanting to stop terrorists and helping the country isn’t an unusual thought for a middle school boy, following through on those dreams with action throughout your high school and college years is rare.
Katstra finds himself on the verge of taking another step toward his goal of working in counterterrorism.
The junior Virginia men’s basketball player will earn his undergraduate degree in foreign affairs next month, and he was accepted into UVa’s Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. He’ll begin work toward his master’s degree next fall while also completing his final season of eligibility on the basketball team.
“It’s definitely been the best three years of my life,” Katstra said of his UVa experience.
Being from the Charlottesville area, Katstra took summer classes at UVa while practicing with the basketball team. Albermarle High School’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder also earned AP credits in high school that translated to UVa. The combination allowed him to earn his undergraduate degree in just three years.
Katstra knew he wanted to play four years of basketball, and he also knew Batten felt like a special place to earn a master’s degree. The public policy program allows Katstra to take general classes his first year in the program before diving deeper into counterterrorism related classes if he still determines that’s the path he wants to follow.
He’ll secure an internship next summer between his first and second years in the program, after his basketball playing days end. Katstra says people he knows within the program have interned everywhere from the United Nations to Teach for America.
The program perfectly aligns with Katstra’s career goals.
“There’s just a sense of community there I think is different from a lot of other places,” Katstra said. “They have really small classes in terms of the entire class that they admit, and everyone that I talked to within the school was just incredible. They’re incredible people. They care about you as an individual as well as in the classroom and they just want you to succeed, and I just really felt that sense of community from there and I was fortunate enough that I was admitted.”
A sense of community is something Katstra has felt for years. After starring at Albemarle, he accepted a walk-on position at Virginia. He took the court wearing the same UVa jersey that his grandfather and father also wore.
He earned a scholarship for the 2018-19 season, which also happened to be the year Virginia won its first national championship.
Throughout his time at Virginia, Katstra has done his best to engage with the UVa community. Whether it’s visiting a local hospital with the team or interacting with professors, Katstra’s UVa bonds run deep.
One professor, James Todd, taught Katstra’s intro to American politics course in the spring of 2018. Todd remembers Katstra fondly, and the professor even hosted Katstra and UVa basketball manager Grant Kersey to dinner at his home this fall.
“His first midterm was an 83, which is not that great,” Todd said, checking his records of Katstra’s class performance. “I have a second optional midterm for anybody who wants to try to improve their grade, and he got a 91.5, so it was quite clear that Austin was a bright kid.”
Todd, a big basketball fan who came to UVa in 1982 to pursue his Ph.D. in part to watch Virginia basketball games during the Ralph Sampson era, praised Katstra’s intellect as well as the junior’s sense of humor.
When UVa won the ACC Tournament during the 2017-18 season, Todd had the class greet Katstra with a round of applause upon his return. Todd joked that Katstra slumped into his chair when he returned from the NCAA Tournament. UVa lost to UMBC in historic fashion, becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed.
The history professor playfully gave Katstra a hard time about the loss.
“I said, ‘Think about it this way, you’re a part of history in your young life,’” Todd said. “He was a good sport to put up with my kidding.”
Todd keeps an eye on his former student as he progresses through his Virginia basketball career. Katstra appeared in just one game in 2019-20, but Todd knows Katstra is much more than a basketball player. Todd spoke of Katstra’s commitment to the team even when he doesn’t see the floor often.
It’s a role most players don’t take, but the Charlottesville native happily obliges all while forming relationships and impressing peers off the court.
“Austin represents the best of our student-athletes,” Todd said.